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Furtwangler and Shostakovich: Bearing Witness in Wartime

Today’s on-line “The American Interest” carries a greatly expanded version of my blog of Feb. 25 (scroll down for Shostakovich and Ives):

Books continue to be written about what it was like to live in Germany under Hitler. I wonder if any of the authors have auditioned Wilhelm Furtwängler’s wartime broadcasts with the Berlin Philharmonic. They should – and also ponder a kindred question: the function of culture in the life of a nation. 

The online products of the Berlin Philharmonic include a $230 box set containing 22 CDs and a 180-page booklet. The contents comprise the orchestra’s complete surviving wartime broadcasts (1939-1945), in the best possible sound, as conducted by a performing artist as controversial as he is legendary. Though other eminent German musicians chose (or were compelled) to emigrate, Furtwängler stayed. 

A specimen: the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 – the last work on Furtwängler’s last wartime broadcast (January 1945). This astounding document opens an audio window on life in Berlin when the city lay in rubbles. Since the orchestra’s historic home had been destroyed one year before, the venue was a faded operetta theater making do as a concert hall. The program had begun with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — interrupted midway through when the lights went out. The audience remained. An hour later, the concert resumed. Rather than returning to Mozart, Furtwängler skipped to the concert’s final scheduled work: the Brahms. 

What was it like performing and hearing Brahms’ First under such dire circumstances? It becomes quite possible to find out.

Brahms would not have recognized Furtwängler’s1945 reading as Brahmsian. With its radical extremes of tempo and mood, it is not “true to the score.” Rather, it is true to the moment. What I glean is something I could not have predicted: not terror, but pride and defiance. The music itself references the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, with its epochal call to humanity. Brahms, in turn, fashions a clarion C major horn call, banishing the dark – which on this singular occasion becomes an iteration of “the real Germany,” stalwart in the face of barbarism and insanity.

So potent is Furtwängler’senduring mystique that the debate over his legacy rages unabated. Certainly his presence in Nazi Germany lent prestige to Hitler’s regime. And yet he insisted that he was preserving a precious inheritance. To my ears, his 1945 Brahms broadcast makes these best intentions wholly tangible and intelligible. 

Richard Taruskin, in one of three valuable essays in the Berlin Philharmonic booklet, considers “Expressivo in Tempore Belli: Considering the Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler” – the most empathetic writing I can recall from this prolific music historian. Taruskin writes of Furtwängler: 

“His definition of Deutschtum (Germanness) was elastic enough to encompass his Jewish countrymen. In an address commemorating Mendelssohn’s centenary in 1947, which was coincidentally the year of his denazification, Furtwänglerended with the explicit declaration that ‘Mendelssohn, Joachim, Schenker, Mahler – they are both Jews and German,’ and then added heartbreakingly: ‘They testify that we German have every reason to see ourselves as a great and noble people. How tragic that this has to be emphasized today.’”

As Taruskin stresses, Furtwängler’s notion of Werktreue – textual fidelity – was not that of Arturo Toscanini or Igor Stravinsky. Rather, it was Richard Wagner’s: not literal adherence to the composer’s notated instructions, but an act of extrapolation discovering the “idea” of the piece. And, I would add, that idea could prove malleable accordingly to time and place: conditions Furtwängler channeled with uncanny sensitivity and communicative force.

Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony was a Furtwängler specialty. The work itself is polyvalent, both demonic and — as the Viennese term their notion of charmed wellbeing —gemütlich. Its second movement, marked “Andante con moto,” is and is not a “slow movement.” Rather, it is a march with trumpet tattoos in alternation with intimations of the sublime. 

Furtwängler’s December 1942 broadcast performance is never gemütlich. When I had occasion to audition this wartime reading on the radio, my studio colleague Bill McGlaughlin memorably characterized its massive climax as “a firestorm.” Here Schubert’s march is a juggernaut hurtling toward an abyss. The abyss is a silence of three beats. In Furtwangler’s account, the silence lasts eight seconds: an eternity. Reacting in the moment, Bill’s voice quavered when he said: “This time we really broke it; we really broke civilization.” And he characterized the music finally lifting the silence – the tenuous pizzicatos, the tender cello song – as an act of dazed consolation. 

Something awful is conveyed in Furtwangler’s wartime reading of Schubert’s climax. It is, I suppose, something Schubert – a seer — may have distantly or subliminally glimpsed. But it is Furtwängler, channeling the moment, who has uncovered it. This terrifying interpretation no more conforms to our notions of “Schubert” than Furtwängler’s 1945 Brahms First supports received wisdom. It instead affirms that music has no fixed meaning, that great works of art are so profoundly imagined that their intent and expression forever mold to changing human circumstances.

 *  *  *

In his potent little book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, Stephen Johnson tells a relevant story. He travelled to St. Petersburg in 2006 to meet an elderly clarinetist named Viktor Kozlov. Kozlov was a rare survivor of a famous symphonic performance: the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on August 18, 1942. The city was in the grips of a murderous Nazi siege. Only fifteen members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra remained alive. Rations were procured. Additional instrumentalists arrived in armed convoys. The 75-minute symphony, newly composed, was somehow performed. During the last movement, members of the audience began to stand. Shostakovich had born witness.

“One woman even gave the conductor flowers – imagine, there was nothingin the city!,” Kozlov recalled. “And yet this one woman found flowers somewhere. It was wonderful! The music touched people because it reflected the Siege. . . . People were thrilled and astounded that such music was played, even during the Siege of Leningrad!”

Johnson next writes:

“’When you hear this music today,’ I asked hesitantly, ’does it still have the same effect?’ Despite all I had heard, nothing prepared me for what happened next. It was as though a huge wave of emotion struck that apartment, and instantly both Kozlov and his wife were sobbing convulsively. He grasped my forearm tightly – I can feel it again as I’m writing – and just about managed to speak: ‘It’s not possible to say. It’s not possible to say.’”

Shostakovich the composer, Furtwängler the conductor, possessed a genius for channeling the moment. On opposite sides of a devastating conflict, both served a great city facing extinction. A sincerely Soviet artist, Shostakovich practiced attunement to a mass of listeners: spurning art for art’s sake, he prioritized his audience. Furtwängler pertinently insisted that he could only make music in the presence of sympathetic listeners. Equally significant was his baton technique: he notoriously eschewed clear downbeats. Rather than imposing a detailed interpretive blueprint, he bonded with his players in a transporting communal rite. Shostakovich’s symphonies say “we,” not “I.” It is the same with Furtwängler’s performances. This is what makes them feel empowering.

Of course there is a problem with such galvanizing strategies of shared expression. They are susceptible to evil intent. It is a problem inherent to culture itself, and to the protean adaptability of enduring artworks. 

Another wartime Furtwängler performance I would call “terrifying” is of the closing moments of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger, as given September 5, 1938, in Nuremberg. Rudolf Bockelmann sings Wagner’s apotheosis to German art – in which Hans Sachs warns of “evil tricks” should Germany one day “decay under false, foreign rule.” Bockelmann’s blood-curdling delivery of “Habt acht!” (“Beware!”) is plainly a product of 1938, when Germany was already a nation apart — not 1862, when the opera was premiered. One can argue about Wagner’s intentions here – many have – but, indisputably, he has created a moment dynamically susceptible to changing times. In fact, I cannot think of a creative artist who so revealingly holds up a mirror to any given time or place. Wagnerism in the United States, peaking around 1890, was fundamentally meliorist, not remotely racist or anti-Semitic. At Wagner’s Bayreuth Theater in Hitler’s time, the Festspielhaus was festooned with swastikas and Die Meistersinger excited Nazi salutes.

Thomas Mann, who could never wholly escape his infatuation with Wagner, was a peerless authority on the Germany of Wagner and Furtwängler. He once wrote: 

“Art will never be moral or virtuous in any political sense: and progress will never be able to put its trust in art. It has a fundamental tendency to unreliability and treachery; its . . . predilection for the ‘barbarism’’ that begets beauty [is] indestructible; and although some may call this predilection . . . immoral to the point of endangering the world, yet it is an imperishable fact of life, and if one wanted to eradicate this aspect of art . . . then one might well have freed the world from a serious danger; but in the process one would almost certainly have freed it from art itself.”

That is from Mann’s Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1919). With the coming of Hitler, Mann became a “political man”: he wrenched himself apart from the Germany he endorsed and embodied, and moved to California. “Everything else would have meant too narrow and specific an alienation of my existence,” he told a 1945 audience at the Library of Congress. “As an American I am a citizen of the world.” Seven years later, having witnessed the onset of the Cold War and the Red Scare, Mann deserted the U.S. for Switzerland; as early as 1951 he wrote to a friend: “I have no desire to rest my bones in this soulless soil to which I owe nothing, and which knows nothing of me.”

Like Furtwängler, Shostakovich was urged to emigrate and escape a monstrous master. Like Furtwängler,he would not. Custodians of a nation’s culture, oppressed by Hitler and by Stalin, Furtwängler and Shostakovich both were denounced for serving the devil – or derogated as mere stooges. Furtwängler did not join the Party. Shostakovich did. But Shostakovich was no Stalinist. As for Furtwängler, Arnold Schoenberg credibly attested:

“I am sure he was never a Nazi. He was one of those old-fashioned Deutschnationale from the time of Turnvater Jahn, when you were national because of those Western states who went with Napoleon This is more an affair of Studentennationalismus, and it differs very much from that of Bismarck’s time and later on, when Germany was not a defender, but a conqueror. Also I am sure that he was no anti-Semite – or at least no more than any non-Jew. And he is certainly a better musician than all those Toscaninis, Ormandys, Kussevitskis, and the whole rest.” 

Furtwängler died in 1954, Shostakovich in 1975. Both outlived the tyrants who oppressed yet paradoxically empowered them.  


Processing that Berlin Philharmonic Pandora box, I am finally directed to my own nation and its cultural possessions — and led to ponder a poverty of opportunity and risk. 

When 9/11 happened – when, again, a great city was assaulted and wounded —  America’s orchestras responded with the requiems of Mozart and Brahms, or with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. We had and have no Brahms, Schubert, or Shostakovich symphony. 

What comes closest, I would say, is the Second Symphony of Charles Ives, completed around 1909. It is redolent of Connecticut porches and bandstands, of New England holidays and Transcendental climes. Every one of the symphony’s melodies – a dense potpourri – is an American tune, secular or religious. It is also a Civil War symphony surging to a patriotic peroration combining “Reveille” and the Civil War song “Wake Nicodemus” with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” In a letter to the conductor Artur Rodzinski, Ives added that he had expressed “sadness for the slaves” by citing the Stephen Foster song “Old Black Joe.” And Ives’s appropriation of this tune, assigned to a solo cello or horn, is in truth his symphony’s most eloquent refrain.

That is: a song once sung in blackface, adapting a dialect caricaturing African-American speech, becomes the symphony’s lyric high point. So it is with America, a nation unfinished and unresolved, whose most popular entertainment for half a century featured white performers masquerading as blacks. The attendant complexities are manifold. Without blackface minstrelsy, there would be no American popular music as we know it. Before the Civil War, blackface was not necessarily racist. And Foster, once America’s most popular composer, was an empathetic observer of the enslaved Americans whose talents and energies he absorbed. As for Ives, he came from Abolitionist stock; his grandmother raised a black boy befriended by Ives’s father during the Civil War.

If Ives conceived the tapestry of his Symphony No. 2 as a knit fabric, if the symphony equally betrays American tears and schisms, it remains a work resilient enough to tell us truths about ourselves. Leonard Bernstein, whose knack for channeling the moment may have been his highest calling as a musical artist, belatedly premiered Ives’s Second in 1951. He also broadcast it and recorded it and proudly took it abroad, where in 1987 he recorded it again in Munich with a German orchestra. It all should have become a lesson and an inspiration. 

But like Furtwängler and Shostakovich, Bernstein is unreplaced. American orchestras play Brahms and Schubert and Shostakovich. So far as American music goes, an opportunity to bear witness lies fallow. Or has the American experience simply not inspired concert music that binds a nation?

To access a “PostClassical” webcast featuring the Furtwangler performances mentioned in this article, click here.


  1. Thanks for this fine piece.
    America is young; it is still ‘becoming.’

  2. William Wolfram says

    Thank you for this article Joe.
    I always love your thought process !!


  1. […] Books continue to be written about what it was like to live in Germany under Hitler. I wonder if any of the authors have auditioned Wilhelm Furtwängler’s wartime broadcasts with the Berlin Philharmonic. They should – and also ponder a kindred question: the function of culture in the life of a nation. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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